'Years of Fierro' ('Los Años de Fierro'): Toronto Review

Years of Fierro
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Less an exposé than a plaintive look at justice long deferred

A likely-innocent man has been on death row for three decades

In 1979, a cab driver in El Paso, Texas was killed. The next year a Mexican citizen, Cesar Fierro, confessed and was sentenced to death. The fact that the bloodthirsty criminal-justice system of Texas hasn't killed him yet is its own testimony to the sizeable doubts about his guilt, yet he is still on Death Row, spending 22 hours a day in a cell and almost all his time by himself. An aching account of this imprisonment, Santiago Esteinou's The Years of Fierro devotes less energy to making the case that he should be freed than to depicting the world he left behind and how little of it remains for him if he is ever released. It is not the kind of urgent advocational film that attracts media attention to theatrical releases, but TV exposure would introduce many viewers not just to Fierro's case but to a broader issue, that of Mexican nationals on Death Row in alleged violation of international treaties.

Many years after his conviction, lawyers getting access to prosecutors' files discovered evidence that Fierro confessed under duress: He was told that Mexican police had taken his mother into custody and were about to use the chicharra, an electroshock torture device often applied to a prisoner's genitals. Apart from this confession, the only evidence in the case was the accusation of a teenage criminal who was given immunity in exchange for testifying. Today, the prosecutor in the case says he wouldn't have even brought the charges if he'd known then what he knows now; even the murder victim's widow thinks Fierro should be freed.

Almost all of this information comes in the doc's final third, after we spend about an hour meeting Fierro in prison and visiting the places he used to live. Most poignantly, we spend a great deal of time with his brother Sergio, a homeless man who often sleeps under the tilt-a-whirl at a small amusement park. Sergio admits to a long life of crime, and is wracked with guilt over having befriended the young man whose later accusations would lead to Cesar's imprisonment. Sergio walks us through their old haunts, recalling how his brother — whose body has been wracked by his time in jail — was famous among locals for his beauty.

During years of wrongful imprisonment and alleged torture, Fierro suffered periods of erratic behavior, writing paranoid letters to lawyers working on his behalf, losing a dramatic amount of weight, and alienating many who were close to him. When Esteinou conducted his interviews, he wasn't even in contact with Sergio (for reasons the film leaves unclear); the two had to send their love to each other through the filmmaker.

"Now that I'm lonely as a dog, I've become a good guy," says Sergio, who claims his many years of petty crime are well behind him. Their mother has died; Cesar's wife and daughter (and the grandchildren he has seen only once) have moved on with their lives. But his brother yearns to walk with him in the scrubby desert near Ciudad Juarez, letting him soak up the open spaces that have been denied him for most of his life.

Production company: Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia

Director-Screenwriter: Santiago Esteinou

Producers: Santiago Esteinou, Alejandro Duran

Director of photography: Maria Secco, Axel Pedraza

Editor: Javier Campos

Music: Carlo Ayhllon


No rating, 99 minutes